WASHINGTON – The U.S. Supreme Court punted on a case that would decide whether religious objectors must play a role in offering contraceptive coverage to their employees, instead sending seven cases back to federal appeals courts in search of an elusive compromise. The court did not rule on the merits and instead sent it back to the appeals court to make new decisions. The decision ducks, for now, a high-profile dispute before the Supreme Court at the height of an election year — at a time when the court is dealing with a vacancy following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia.
The matter almost certainly would not return to the Supreme Court until after the 2016 presidential election. The outcome suggests the court lacked a majority for a significant ruling and is perhaps another example of how the justices have been affected by the death of Scalia. In the short term, the government can take steps to make sure that women covered by the groups’ health plans have access to cost-free contraceptives. At the same time, the groups will not face fines for refusing to comply with administration rules for objecting to paying for birth control. The Little Sisters of the Poor’s legal team claimed a victory after the court claimed a victory.
We are very encouraged by the Court’s decision, which is an important win for the Little Sisters. The Court has recognized that the government changed its position,” Mark Rienzi, senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said in a statement. “It is crucial that the Justices unanimously ordered the government not to impose these fines and indicated that the government doesn’t need any notice to figure out what should now be obvious — the Little Sisters respectfully object. There is still work to be done, but today’s decision indicates that we will ultimately prevail in court.”
The high court two years ago said the Little Sisters and its third-party insurance administrator could remain temporarily exempt from the mandates, while lower courts continued to wrangle with the merits of the primary challenge to the federal health law provisions on contraception. The rules were designed by the administration to give women employed at nonprofit, religious-based organizations the ability to receive contraception through separate health policies with no co-pay.
The justices could have issued a 4-4 decision upholding all lower court rulings, but that would have left different standards in different parts of the country. The 8th Circuit appeals court, with jurisdiction over Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota, ruled in favor of the non-profit organizations.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor reiterated that point in a concurrence signed by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The court’s opinion, she wrote, “does not … endorse the petitioners’ position that the existing regulations substantially burden their religious exercise or that contraceptive coverage must be provided through a ‘separate policy.'” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the ruling may be another indication of the court’s shortcomings while shorthanded.